Seventy years ago today, the world changed. With the dropping of one bomb mankind had finally found a weapon that could wipe out the entire population, literally at once.
The United States had been working on developing an atomic weapon, after having been warned by Albert Einstein that Nazi Germany was already conducting research into nuclear weapons. By the time the United States conducted the first successful test (July 1945), Germany had already been defeated. The war against Japan was still being fought.
President Harry S. Truman was warned his advisers that any attempt to invade Japan would result in a horrific number of deaths–up to a million. So he ordered that the new weapon be used to bring the war to a speedy end. On August 6, 1945, the American bomber Enola Gay dropped a five-ton bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. A blast equivalent to the power of 15,000 tons of TNT reduced five square miles of the city to ruins and immediately killed 80,000 people. Tens of thousands more died in the following weeks from wounds and radiation poisoning. On August 9th, three days later another bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, killing nearly 40,000 more people. A few days later, Japan announced its surrender.
Lately there has been much revisionist history about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some say that Japan was poised to surrender before these horrible weapons were dropped, that Truman did not have to use the Atomic Bomb. If this was the case no one told Truman, no one told the Japanese Emperor either.
At noon on August 15, 1945, the Emperor of Japan announced Japan’s surrender over the radio. This was the first time in history the people of Japan had ever heard their Emperor’s voice. He blamed the surrender on the horrible new weapon.
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The enemy, moreover, has begun to employ a new most cruel bomb, the power which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would only result in the ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation . . . but would lead also to the total extinction of human civilization. Such being the case, how are we to save millions of our subjects, or ourselves, to atone before the hallowed spirits of our Imperial ancestors? This is the reason we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the joint declaration of the Powers.
Soon after the US developed their atomic bomb others developed the weapon. In 1949 the world was horrified as Soviet Russia tested an atomic weapon. The world settled into what eventually became known as mutually assured destruction (MAT). No nation wanted to use nuclear weapons because any first strike could be answered with an equally destructive response.
For the baby-boomer generation, the possibility of nuclear war seemed all too real. We were on the precipice of a war using the ultimate weapon in 1963 during the Cuban Missile Crisis and again ten years later during the Arab Israeli Yom Kippur war. And we were reminded of it in school when a few times a year we had nuclear drills. Students were instructed to walk into the hallways, get onto our knees facing the wall, put our heads down and our hands over our heads. That might have made us feel better but depending where the bomb landed this exercise would do little to save us.
Seventy years later there are nine countries that have gone nuclear. Along with the U.S. there is Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel (although officially Israel will not say whether or not they have nuclear weapons). Beyond those we know that Iran is close to the weapon, and since the P5+1 deal was announced, Saudi Arabia is shopping for the technology.
The use of the atomic bomb to end WWII was a horrible necessity. Two bombs ended up killing over two hundred thousand people, wounding countless others, and that doesn’t even include the birth defects, but it was still much less than what a land invasion would have caused.
By seeing the destruction, the repugnant human devastation of this weapon mankind may have worked even harder never to use it again. Thankfully in the seventy years since, no country has dared to use these horrific weapons whose killing power has been refined and expanded. But that may change as Iran whose leaders see a nuclear holocaust as a way to bring the Muslim version of the messiah, moves toward the bomb which it may use itself or share with its terrorist partners. Sadly the Obama administration seems to naive to stop that from happening.